Using authority asymmetries

Doing innovation for a living quickly gives you a thick skin, because more often than not, some of your best work never sees the light of day. It is very important to avoid emotional investment in any particular innovation because most of the factors that get an idea out of the door are not under the direct control of the innovator.

Now, I’ve been espousing for a while that a key skill in this game is being able to "drown the puppy", or in other words, killing off ideas as soon possible. The minute the evidence starts to arrive that something might not work is the best time to do this. You don’t want to be spending money just because you are emotionally invested in something that sounds good on paper.

But that doesn’t mean that anyone likes it very much when their great ideas get torpedoed by anyone else. That can happen for a lot of reasons, chief amongst them that the innovator failed to do enough influencing to get the decision maker on board before a decision was needed. There is no point railing against the political aspect of the job: it is a fact of life. Innovation does not occur in a vacuum.

Invariably, there are more political issues to manage for a given innovation than the people-bandwidth available to deal with them. That’s especially true for younger innovation programmes (who must operate with limited senior executive support whilst they get their first wins) and for very big, transformational innovations that touch significant parts of the business.

Therefore, managing the political dimension becomes a resource prioritisation exercise. You want to spend the limited time available for managing and influencing in such a way that you optimise the chance an idea can get funded and see the light of day.

It is actually quite simple to do this, as there are generally authority asymmetries in most organisations.

There is a very large group of people who are authorised to say "no" to things. It is easy for an institution to allow them to do so, because the consequence is that nothing changes from what is presently in place. A future with uncertainty is more frightening than the present that is known absolutely.

On the other hand, there is a very small group of people who are actually empowered to say "yes". And these are not always very senior managers with the institutions appropriate authorisation to do things. Sometimes, people decide for themselves that they can say "yes" and manage resultant consequences appropriately. The maxim about asking for forgiveness not permission is a description of these individuals.

It is rarely the case that people with authority to say "no" and those that can say "yes" overlap that much. This is the authority asymmetry I refer to in the title of this post.

Anyway, this asymmetry provides us with the opportunity to manage the politics involved in innovation effectively.

For a given idea, there is practically no upside for the innovator in influencing people who are only authorised to say no, especially for the earliest parts of the influencing cycle. The best outcome possible is that they don’t drown the puppy, There is no chance at all that involving them will increase the chance that an idea will actually get approval.

Influencing someone who can say "yes", however, is quite a different proposition. While there is still the risk of a "no", even an ambivalent response hasn’t hurt the chance of getting something out the door. But an official "yes" is the breath of life for an idea. For an innovator, this is  much superior value proposition.

Maximising the return on influence means using authority asymmetries so that the greatest amount of time is spent with people who have the power to say "yes". And conversely, making sure that the ideas is as under the radar as possible for those who can only say "no".

How do you identify the difference between the two groups? My experience suggests that those individuals without a direct connection to the actual revenue of a particular business line will most likely be authorised only to say no. They are the ones that should be kept out of the innovation cycle for as long as is practicable.

There is nothing disingenuous about using authority asymmetries in this way. It is rational behaviour for managers who need to keep things running smoothly to avoid change as much as possible. The discontinuity of innovation is that it must be balanced against this very powerful force. Using authority asymmetries wisely- which means knowing when you must make an exception to this rule-means you can increase the flow of innovation to the organisation.

4 Responses to“Using authority asymmetries”

  1. June 9, 2008 at 1:19 pm #

    A thoughtful piece James. The realities of organisation is a key component of successful innovation, and productive change. I wish it were not so, but in any large organisation some degree of this is bound to exist.

  2. June 11, 2008 at 1:12 pm #

    Thanks for the comment Colin. I totally agree with you. Since you are going to get this in organisations anywhere, far better to manage, than ignore.

  3. Sandra
    June 23, 2008 at 8:59 am #

    Brilliant article James
    Re: “Sometimes, people decide for themselves that they can say “yes” and manage resultant consequences appropriately. The maxim about asking for forgiveness not permission is a description of these individuals.”
    Do you know of any studies that quantify the organisational benefits of hosting such freewheeling agents? 😉

  4. June 23, 2008 at 9:40 am #

    Hi – I don’t know of any studies that quantify the benefits, but I am looking for them as part of the research I’m presently doing for Future-Proofing. But I do have lots of anecdotal evidence from bank innovators around the world that authority asymetries are very much a reality….

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